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Katrina Relief Volunteers in New Orleans : Second Trip

The following captures the feelings and observations made during our recent trip in January and was prepared by one of our team members: Julia Helgeson.

I have just returned from an intense five-day Hurricane Katrina relief trip to New Orleans and wanted to try to briefly share some of this incredibly humbling and moving experience with you.

Let me first say this: Despite what you have heard (or not heard due to the significant decrease of news coverage on this story these days) things are not fine in New Orleans. It has been 4 and ½ months since Katrina ravaged the city on August 28, 2005, and quite frankly, the city and its people are in shambles, both physically and emotionally.

I was able to witness this personally, as I met and talked with literally hundreds of people who visited the Celebration Church food and clothing distribution center that our team of 16 volunteers helped operate during our stay. While helping people stock up on the available supplies, these folks told us their heart-wrenching personal stories of loss: of loved ones, of wind-damaged and flooded homes to the extreme degree, of the loss of all their personal and material belongings.

Katrina, supported by Rita, was an Equal Opportunity Destroyer. The physical and emotional trauma is widespread and crosses the entire socio-economic stratum that comprises the city. Because their physical environment has literally been crushed to smithereens, the rest of their lives have started to unravel. While at first adrenaline kept them going, the adrenaline is now giving way to depression and even despair. The effect is exponential and the burdens become heavier as each day folks wake up to the same devastation that existed yesterday, with little or no progress. The regular course of "Pre-Katrina" life has faded away and peoples' lives seem to be spiraling downward and out of control as they try to figure out where to go from here.

Multiple families are currently living in cramped, damaged quarters or hotels. Many are not able to cook because they have no appliances, marriages are being seriously tested as they grapple with whether to stay and try to rebuild their lives or to go somewhere else and start anew - and with what resources? Insurance pay-offs are ludicrously insufficient. People are experiencing increased health problems, losing jobs and/or not getting paid for their work, landlords are implementing unconscionable rent hikes, with the so-called three-month mortgage "moratoriums" simply a ruse with foreclosure quickly looming at the end of the supposed respite. The sense is that FEMA is increasingly less responsive, which is no doubt worsened by the recent switch of the phone number to an automated system. As a result, people are confused, uninformed and simply waiting for word through every step of the process: Do we qualify for a FEMA trailer? When might it arrive? Where will it be put (and how much is that going to cost)? When it arrives, how long will it take to get connected to the sewage system and the other utilities? How much longer will it take to get connected to the temporary electric poles? Will FEMA provide one of the signature bright blue tarps for my roof? If so, how long will it sit beside my house before I can find someone to install it?

As for the physical damage, we were able to tour around the city, including through the hardest hit Lower 9 th Ward. Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was surreal. As we drove through the parishes, the devastation and debris seemed endless. The infested water came in and thrashed everything into bits, then settled in and festered for two weeks or longer in some areas, literally ruining everything. Now that the water has receded, a thick residue of muck blankets every square inch, inside and out. Cars are upside down and protruding from demolished rooftops. Rooftops are blown out and separated from the rest of their structures, houses are cracked and shredded, removed from their foundations and sometimes even blocks away from where they used to sit. They look like gigantic toy houses that have been sitting in oily mud and are now warped, crooked, broken open and in pieces, as if they were angrily stomped on and ground into the dirt during a frenzied tirade.

If you are able to make out what once was inside the house, the rooms are virtually unrecognizable unless you can make out a piece of a kitchen counter, a closet door, a lonely commode. Most houses are spray-painted with people and pet fatality information by the teams that searched them, and residents have added their own painted messages, such as: forwarding phone numbers, "For Sale", "Goodbye" or even "We'll be back." The typically non-seasonal mosquitos are humongous and hungry. There are very little signs of plant, animal, or human life in many of these areas. As people come and go into the city to try and clear out the insides of the homes that are still standing, curbsides are buried with mounds of wreckage that include televisions, computers, clothes, furniture - a personal junkyard for each family dwelling. Where will it all go? Who is going to pick it up? When? I have included a few photos that show this more clearly than I ever could express in words.

Yet, in spite of all that has happened and the sadness that weighs heavily on the collective shoulders and the spirit of this community of Americans, it was an incredible privilege and blessing to meet and talk to as many people as possible. These souls were grateful not only for supplies, but for prayer, and they expressed faithfulness, relief, joy to have people help, the need to have people listen to what they have and are continuing to go through with no end in sight. I am utterly inspired by the grace, love, humility, openness, gentleness, sweetness and kindness of the New Orleans people I met. As I am able to simply get on an airplane and leave the scene of this tragedy, these memories will continually replay both in my mind and in my heart. They will encourage me to remember, to do more, care more and to hopefully return again.

I have a lot more to say about my experience if you are interested. If you have any questions for me or just generally want to talk about this, please do not hesitate to let me know as I would love to share as much as you want to hear. Also, because of the dire need for certain supplies, such as blankets, coats and diapers, some of us will be looking into ways we can raise funds to   purchase these items and send them to the distribution center in the coming months. If you are interested in hearing more about this, please e-mail and I will send you a follow-up e-mail with details on how you can help.

Until then, thank you for letting me share this with you.  Julia